EDITORIAL NOTE – TOTALITARIANISM, TERROR AND THE ABSURD

George Jonas tells a story in our current issue that would be literally unbelievable if it were not corroborated by a good half of twentieth century history. A university professor who had been critical of the regime in a country under post-war Soviet domination was tried and executed for the murder of a missing student. He was also accused – and why not? – of being a “Titoist agent” etc., etc.


No one believed that the professor had committed a murder, of course, nor even that he was a “Titoist” saboteur. Yet they were still surprised when the “missing” student turned up for classes, without explanation, when the next term came around. Some even wondered (heretically, it should be pointed out) if the authorities had blundered by allowing this proof of their perfidy to come to light. As Mr Jonas points out in his reflections on totalitarian terrorism, however, that people should know of their crime was the whole point for totalitarians: “… as sophisticated people understood. The message of Stalinism was: ‘We can do anything.’”


This determination to compel universal assent to a massive Lie in which no one believes is peculiar to totalitarianism. It does not exist in authoritarian regimes which, even if they censor, do not demand assent to lies, let alone to lies that they themselves expose. If a Marxist were to take a critical look at this phenomenon, he would have to call it “surplus repression”. It is especially disturbing that assent to the Lie occurred also in the West where those who said “yes” have no one to blame but themselves.


Genuine “Titoists”, including Josip Broz himself, were the first beneficiaries of this voluntary Western self-deception. As Attila Balázs documents in this issue, Yugoslavia under Tito was less an actual country than an island in the mind where the lion lay down with the lamb and both got up in the morning. It combined the many virtues of socialism with the few efficiencies of capitalism while lacking the usual cruelties of both. It was socialism under the sun in every sense.


The late Tibor Szamuely (the anti-communist historian and nephew of the infamous commissar of the same name) used to remark mordantly that the Tito regime must be the most liberal government in world history. For at regular six- monthly intervals he would read in the Observer that a government reshuffle in Belgrade had moved the regime towards greater liberalism. But he never read of Tito moving in the opposite direction towards greater repression. QED.


Some are today inclined to remember this regime more fondly in the light of the vicious ideologies and wars that ravaged Post-Yugoslavia. Yet if a deep-freeze breaks down after sixty years of unbroken service, some very mouldy things are likely to be revealed when the ice melts.


A Hungarian gentleman of the early twentieth century, given by some time- traveller a history of the next hundred years, would refuse to believe that the full totalitarian phenomenon could possibly exist. He could envisage it only as a literary invention – a brilliantly imagined dystopia, like Orwell’s 1984, that would crash against social reality if attempted.


In the end, as we know, it did. But at the start it presented conventional statesmen with challenges that were novel, terrible, and almost incomprehensible. János Horváth’s reminiscences of Hungarians such as Pál Teleki and Domokos Szent-Iványi in this issue show that some of them at least responded with courage and remarkable insight. They made mistakes. They failed to save Hungary from either totalitarianism. But when Satan and Mephistopheles are your only available dancing partners, it is hard to do a Viennese waltz gracefully.


Their record is nonetheless superior to that of the literary intelligentsia. Slavomir Mrožek, a great Polish playwright and a self-critical ex-Marxist, who died last month, opened his play, Portrait, with a monologue in the dark by a disillusioned lover who lists the beauties and betrayals of his love. When the lights go up, he is addressing a picture of Stalin.


My first conscious glimpse of this monstrous truth occurred about thirty years ago at the then-famous lunch of “reactionary intellectuals” at Bertorelli’s in London. Among those present that day was Tibor Szamuely and the British historian, Robert Conquest, who had just published his celebrated study of Stalinist crimes, “The Great Terror”.


Bob raised a question.


“I can understand why Stalin killed so-and-so”, he said, “and why he killed what’s-his-name. But why did he kill Marshall Tukachevsky?”


“Why not?” replied Szamuely.

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